The Gallows Curse - By Karen Maitland


Anno Domini 1160

'I need poison . . . now . . . this very night. Poison that will kill a man for certain, but not too quickly; I can't risk being discovered with him when he dies.' The stranger hesitated. 'It must appear a natural death . . . one that'll arouse no suspicions when the corpse is discovered.'

'But why come to me?' Gunilda protested.

'I was told that if there is anyone in Lincoln, indeed in the whole kingdom, who has the skill to conjure such a substance, it's you.' The man reached across and grasped the edge of Gunilda's skirt, tugging it like a wheedling child. 'There's no one else I can turn to . . . help me, in your mercy ... I beg of you.'

In the dim mustard light of the guttering tallow candle, Gunilda could see little of the man's expression, but she could hear the desperation in his voice. When a stranger comes knocking at the door of your cottage at the darkest hour of night, you can be certain it is not a cure for warts he's seeking.

The man leaned forward, lowering his voice still further. "Your knowledge is valuable and the ingredients costly, I've no doubt.' He spread his hands wide. 'I'm a poor man, as you can see. I can't pay in coin. But I do have something that might interest a woman like you, something so rare and precious it is beyond price.'

He reached into the leather scrip hanging from his belt and pulled out a packet the size of his hand, bundled in rags. He began to unwrap it, but Gunilda caught his wrist to stop him.

'Have you any idea what you're asking? I'm not going to help you to kill a man. I don't know what tattle you've been listening to, but I'm a healer, not a murderer. If you've some quarrel to settle, go to any of the alehouses and inns down at the quayside. You'll find a score of men hanging around those places only too eager to slit a man's throat or bludgeon him over the head for nothing more than the price of a flagon of ale.'

The stranger shook his head. 'Don't think I haven't considered that, but this man is a Norman knight, well guarded. He doesn't roam the streets alone.'

Gunilda snorted. 'And you think that's going to convince me to help you, do you? You're not merely asking me to murder some old midden-grubber or ship's rat. No, you want me to slaughter a Norman, and a nobleman no less. You're not just moon-touched; you're a gibbering cod-wit. I think you'd better leave now, before you put us both on the gallows for even talking about it.'

But her visitor made no attempt to rise. He leaned forward on the low stool, his face masked by the shadows from the bunches of herbs swinging above his head.

You don't understand. The man I want to kill is the man who raped my daughter. She's not yet twelve years old. He hurt her, and she's beside herself with terror that he'll return. I can't accuse him without for ever defiling her reputation and besides, who would take notice of a poor man like me? If I brought such an accusation against a nobleman, he'd only deny it and the sheriff would believe him. Even if he didn't, what could the sheriff do? Fine him, if that, and then he'd be free to take his revenge on me and, worse still, on her. My child will never be able to sleep without fear until that monster is dead, and he deserves to die for what he's done.'

Gunilda glanced behind her at the small figure of her own daughter curled up asleep under a heap of rags. She was the same age as this man's child. If a man ever touched her daughter, she'd rip his throat out with her own teeth. Any louse who forced himself upon a child deserved more than mere poison.

The man had followed her gaze. 'For my daughter,' he begged.

He continued to unwrap the small package and this time Gunilda made no move to stop him. She gasped when she saw what lay inside.

'Can it be ... is it genuine?'

But she didn't need him to answer that question for as soon as she took it in her bare hands she could feel it stirring to life. It was a black and twisted thing, a shrivelled root, shaped like a human with a body, two